What are STIs & BBVs?

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What are STI?

Sexually transmissible infections (STI) are caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. They are transmitted from one person to another by skin-to-skin contact or contact with bodily fluids such as pre-cum, vaginal and anal secretions, breast milk, and semen (cum). Typically, the organisms that cause STI enter the body through broken skin or mucous membranes, which are the warm, moist surfaces including the vagina, urethra, anus, mouth, and eyes. Mucous membranes are much thinner and more easily damaged than regular skin. 

There are many types of STI, causing a range of short and long-term health issues. Some do not have symptoms but can lead to moderate to severe health complications. Most STI symptoms are treatable, but they can usually be managed with ongoing treatment.

What are BBV? 

Blood borne viruses (BBVs) can be spread from one person to another through blood-to-blood contact or when infected bodily fluids enter the bloodstream. Vaginal or anal sex can cause tiny cuts (sometimes called micro-tears) in mucous membranes, especially where there is not enough lubrication. This damage can be so minor that you don’t even notice it, but it can provide an entry point for BBVs. People infected with a BBV may show little or no symptoms, and others may get severe symptoms. BBVs can be passed on whether the person has symptoms or not.

Other body fluids or materials such as urine, faeces (poo), saliva, sweat, tears, and vomit carry a minimal to no BBV infection unless contaminated with blood. You should still take precautions, however, as the presence of blood is not always obvious.

Who can get STI and BBV? 

Anybody who is sexually active can transmit or get an STI or BBV. Safer sex practices can significantly reduce your risk of catching or passing on an STI or BBV.

Despite the stigma surrounding sex work and sex worker health, sex workers in Australia generally have STI and BBV transmission rates lower than or equal to the general population. This is because sex workers are experts at protecting ourselves from STI and providing safer sexual services – after all, it’s a part of the job! 

Shame and stigma about STI and BBVs often prevent people from seeking testing and treatment. Stigma generally comes from the incorrect belief that having an STI or BBV results from engaging in the “wrong” kinds of sexual activities. 

The truth is that STI and BBVs are just medical conditions with no inherent moral or immoral implications. They are very common, and anyone who has any amount of sex can get one. STI and BBV stigma may be external – like being negatively judged by people around us – or internalised – when we negatively judge ourselves. 

How can I get or transmit BBV or STI? 

Every STI and BBV has different transmission potential and health impacts, so it is important to know enough about them to take the right precautions for you. Having unprotected vaginal, anal, and oral sex increase your risk of getting or transmitting an STI or BBV. A person can be affected by more than one at the same time, and having an existing STI or BBV can increase the risk of contracting other STI or BBV.

It is also possible for you to transfer an STI from one part of your body to another part of your body. For example, you can transfer an STI like gonorrhoea from your vagina to your throat via a penis that has made contact with both areas. However, this is not very common. Many STI and BBVs can be transmitted by sharing objects such as sex toys or enema equipment. Some BBV, such as hepatitis C, can live outside the body for a long time. 

People often do not know they have an STI or BBV and may unknowingly pass them on to others. 

Will I know if I have a BBV or STI? 

While STI and BBV may present symptoms, they don’t always appear, so you may not always know if you have one. Many are ‘asymptomatic’, which means that they may not cause symptoms. That can make them hard to detect. Regular STI and BBV testing and testing if you have potential exposure to an STI or BBV is important to keep you and your clients as safe as possible. You can view a list of sex worker-friendly sexual health clinics at our Where To Test page.

Untreated STI or BBV may cause health issues and secondary infections, so it is important to get tested if you think you may have one. Some STI and BBV may not present immediate signs, but symptoms and/or complications can show up months or years later.

Visit our BBV, STI and related conditions section for detailed information on signs and symptoms and what to do if you notice them. 

What are some common STI symptoms? 

While each STI or BBV can present differently, if you are experiencing any of the following signs, you should get a sexual health check as soon as possible:

  • pain or burning when you pee
  • an increase in or change in colour or texture of discharge
  • change in odour from genitals or anus
  • lumps, blisters, sores or rashes
  • unusual vaginal or anal bleeding
  • pain or bleeding when having sex
  • anal pain or lower abdominal pain
  • pain in the scrotum or testicles
  • an ongoing itch or irritation in the genitals or anus
  • fever or flu-like symptoms
  • persistent diarrhoea

This is not an exhaustive list. Visit our BBV, STI and related conditions section for detailed information on signs and symptoms and what to do if you notice them.  

If you are experiencing symptoms, you can view a list of sex worker-friendly sexual health clinics at our Where To Test page.

Can STI and BBV come back after treatment? 

Whether an STI or BBV can come back depends on your infection. 

In most cases, getting infected with an STI or BBV will not protect you from future infections, which means that you can have them more than once. With some STI and BBV, transmission happens once and the infection stays in the body for life. 

There are a few STI that you can become immune to after infection, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

While treatments for STI and BBV are available and effective, not all infections are ‘curable’. Some infections, such as HIV, hepatitis C, HPV or herpes, stay in the body but do not cause symptoms immediately, or at all. These infections can be effectively managed, without a huge impact on your life. Your doctor is the best person to advise you in these situations.

Some common ways people get reinfected with BBV and STI include 

  • not completing treatment,
  • partner/s not getting treated, and 
  • unprotected sexual contact.

Can I be vaccinated against BBV and STI?

There are some vaccinations available against certain STI and BBV. These vaccinations are recommended for sex workers, but they are not mandatory. 

The Australian Immunisation Handbook recommends that sex workers should consider getting vaccinated for

  • hepatitis A,
  • hepatitis B, and
  • HPV (human papillomavirus). 

It is also recommended that sex workers stay up-to-date with diphtheria and tetanus (DT) and measles, mumps and rubella vaccines (MMR).

Some vaccinations are free for sex workers in certain states and territories. Contact your local sex worker organisation or sexual health clinic for more information on vaccinations.

How might BBV and STI impact my work? 

Having an STI and/or BBV can impact your work. For example, you may require time off and/or providing services might be painful or uncomfortable. You can find detailed information about how each specific infection or condition might impact your work in our BBV, STI and related conditions section.

The fear of getting an STI and/or BBV can also cause anxiety at work. Knowing what to look for, getting regular sexual health tests, and learning how to keep yourself safe can help. Getting peer education in the workplace or through a sex worker peer organisation is a great way to empower yourself with the knowledge you need to make your own decisions about your health and safety at work. 

Some states and territories also have laws about doing sex work or just having sex while you have an infection that you can pass on. Our BBV, STI and the law resource and your local sex worker peer organisation can provide further information. 

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